Interest-Group Influence on the Media Agenda: A Case Study

By Huckins, Kyle | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview
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Interest-Group Influence on the Media Agenda: A Case Study

Huckins, Kyle, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly

Attempting to add to the growing literature on setting the media agenda (or agenda building), the study uses agenda-setting theory in a case study of testing the correlation between the agendas of an interest group (Christian Coalition) and media (major U.S. newspapers). Highly significant relationships were found in correlations cross-lagged at three months between the agenda of the group's official newspaper and the media agenda, and statistically significant second-level effects were also noted. One- and two-month lags yielded lower correlations, but also in the direction of the Coalition setting the media agenda for coverage of the group.


"The mass media force attention to certain issues," wrote Lang and Lang in 1966. "They are constantly presenting objects suggesting what individuals in the mass should think about, know about, have feelings about."1

Research on agenda setting has addressed this point with more than 200 studies over the past three decades.2 Comparatively little study has applied the observation of Lang and Lang one step earlier in the distillation of news-namely, to how sources present issues, information, and themselves to the media, and what the effects of those presentations might be.

Lippmann noted newsmakers' discomfort with leaving their portrayals to the discretion of journalists, leading to the emergence of press agents.3 This may have been the first suggestion of nuance in the sourcereporter relationship. However, in the intervening seventy-five years, agendasetting studies on such relationships have focused on selected elites rather than interest groups, which often work diligently on their images in the news.

The writings of Lippmann also form the basis for the extension of the second level of agenda setting. Traditional agenda setting deals with issue or object salience, that is, how media put certain subjects on the public agenda. Second-level agenda setting examines attribute salience, how descriptions of aspects of the object or issue are transferred from media to receiver.4 Maher found citizens of Austin, Texas, named the same causes for area pollution as those mentioned in the local daily newspaper.5 In nearby Victoria, Bryan saw that the attributes of mayoral candidates promoted in the local paper and advertising significantly correlated with later public opinion surveys.6

This is a logical extension of traditional agenda setting, feels Max McCombs, an originator of the theory. His study of Spanish elections found significant correlations between elements of newspaper and television candidate portrayals and voter attitudes. He noted these were particularly high along the affective dimension, defined as whether the candidate was viewed overall in a positive, negative, or neutral light. "Could the consequences of this be that the media do tell us what to think?" and not just what to think about, he queried.7

Applying this idea of the second level to media agenda setting (or agenda building) would contend that a source changing the tone of its messages will change the tone of resulting media coverage. Some have conceded that sources have power with media; Gans theorized that sources organize a world of data into manageable choices for journalists, who then make story selections to fill news holes.8 However, this application has yet to be tested.

The present study sought to bring quantitative data to the discussion of media agenda setting at the second level through a case study. It compared the agenda of the Christian Coalition, one of the most influential U.S. political efforts of the past twenty years,9 to the agenda of reports in top secular newspapers concerning the group, thus examining the direct transfer of salience at the interest-group level. The Coalition's regularly published newspaper reconstructed the organization's agenda, discourse, and alliances.

The group radically changed its agenda and approach toward the media after the 1992 elections, as Republicans blamed its leadership for the party's failure at the polls.

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